Southern-style Sweet Tea for Summertime

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Introduction: Southern-style Sweet Tea for Summertime

When I moved to Boston from South Carolina, I would on occasion go into otherwise-reputable restaurants and order sweet tea, just on principle. Most of the time, the server would give me a confused look and say, "I can bring you sugar with your iced tea..." and I would then explain how proper sweet tea is made.
It's dead-simple: make tea and put the sugar in while it's hot, then cool and ice it. That's all. Maybe some mint, maybe a bit of lemon.

But some sort of magic happens, and you end up with a pitcher of this beverage about which poems are written, which brings to mind slow lazy sitting-on-the-porch days and gracefully sprawling oak trees, which prompted legislators in Georgia to try to pass a law decreeing that any restaurant that offered iced tea on the menu had to offer sweet tea.

God rested on the seventh day, but early in the morning,
before the sun strained into the Southern sky,
she made sweet tea from scratch. She boiled the water
in a black kettle, put in the orange pekoe bags
and let them stand as the water perked, and then
she did what gods know what to do: she heaped in the Dixie
Crystal sugar while the brew was still warm as the day.

- From "Sweet Tea", by John Lane

Step 1: Boil Water, Add Tea, Steep.

Think of this as not so much instructions as the steps in a cultural ritual.

Some people have special iced-tea makers -- one of my going-away-to-college gifts from an aunt was an iced-tea maker just so that I could make sweet tea without even having to walk to the kitchen. For much of my first two years there, I carried a bottle of homemade high-octane sweet tea with me to class, instead of coffee. Double strong, double sweet, it was dangerous stuff.

You could use a coffeepot if you're desperate and don't mind your tea tasting like burnt coffee. You could use a teakettle and a good pitcher. Or you could use a big pot; that's what I do, these days, since I don't have the right kind of pitcher.

Boil the water, then turn off the heat and add the bags of tea.

For tea, my grandmothers use Lipton or Luzianne, the big iced-tea bags for making several quarts at a time. One of my grandmothers adds a small bag or two of Constant Comment. For the ~3 quarts of sweet tea I made yesterday, I used two big Lipton iced-tea bags, two small bags of roasted chicory (herbal) tea, and one bag of barley tea from the Korean market up the street. (Not "authentic", but very tasty in a toasted-grain kinda way.) Adding a bag of some kind of spicy chai also works well.

I brew mine a bit stronger than the instructions call for, 10 minutes or so.

Step 2: Sweeten Your Tea.

This is the magic bit. While the tea is still hot, add sugar.

I don't recall ever measuring the sugar for sweet tea. You could try, I suppose. Maybe it would work. But I can't tell you how much sugar to put in your tea. Sweeten it until it tastes good, and remember that it'll taste sweeter when it's hot than it will after it's chilled and iced.

My grandmothers use scoops of white sugar; I use brown sugar and honey. This time around, I put in what looked like a couple handfuls of brown sugar and a big round spoonful of honey, for three quarts of tea.

As an aside: I get tubs of local honey at the Berkeley Bowl, and have discovered that if I keep the honey in the fridge, it doesn't crystallize, doesn't attract ants, and has a really neat caramel-taffy texture.

Now is also a good time to add mint, if you have some around. Crush the leaves a bit before putting them into the warm tea.

Step 3: Chill Your Sweet Tea, Then Drink It Iced. Rejoice!

My dad told me a story once of the first time he met my mother's extended family, up in north Mississippi. They'd come out to visit out on one of the farms, and he said everyone woke up very early, worked 'til noon, came in for lunch, went out for another couple of hours, and then came back around 2 or 3pm for tea. "Tea" was served in silver mint julep cups, and on his first sip he was rather startled to realize that it was, in fact, mostly bourbon. Being taken on a high-speed tour of the dirt roads around the farm after this was apparently quite an adventure. (His words were "I thought I was going to die.") This is not that kind of tea, but it has still kept me up late many a night at Waffle House and fueled roadtrips and conversations and all kinds of adventures.

I used to have a big plastic pitcher for keeping sweet tea, but plastic is not the way to go if you're going to keep the tea around for more than a couple of hours. (Works fine if you're making a big batch to serve with dinner or a picnic, though.)

Instead, glass mason jars are an excellent solution, and just awesome in and of themselves. Decant the tea off into the jars, but leave enough room to dilute it a little if you've brewed your tea strong; add water to get it just right. For mine, when I can hold the jar up to sunlight and the tea is just barely transparent, that's perfect. (Dear Instructables: If someone wants to build a portable device that will measure the strength of coffee or tea by its optical density, that would make me very geekily happy.)

I usually leave the mint leaves in the jar, so that the tea gets more mint flavor over time. Also, since the tea will be cooling, don't screw the lids on too tight. That makes it harder to get at the tea later.

You can pour the warm tea straight over ice and drink it right away, preferably stretched out somewhere comfortable and shady. Or you can set the jars in the fridge to chill and have a tasty glass ready when it's 80F at 10am the next day.

To wrap the story all the way around, in my four-and-some years in Boston, there was one restaurant where I ordered sweet tea, and the waiter listened very patiently to my explanation of what "sweet tea" was, and then earned a special place in my heart by bringing me out a complete sweet-tea-making set: a teapot with hot water, a bag of black tea, a bowl of sugar, and a tall glass filled with ice.

Enjoy!

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122 Discussions

In my family, each woman has a special pot that tea is brewed in. It has to be all metal( no non stick) and it is only used to brew tea. They get rinsed out, but not washed with soap except once in a while. In my house, my tea pot is used to make gallons every day. Not anymore, but when I was little, it was given to babies in their bottles! Glad someone else feels as strongly about it.

Made this for the first time tonight; filled up 3 mason jars with it, but one of them is only half a jarful at this point. :D Thanks for the 'ible!

My girlfriend would love you for this. She's from Florida, and we had the whole discussion about sweet tea vs. sweetened iced tea. On a visit back to FL, she got a sweet tea and handed it to me, saying "Here, *THIS* is sweet tea!" I remember taking a sip, handing it back and saying, "You're right, this isn't sweetened iced tea, this is sugary s%&t in a cup that dentists created to drum up business." I like my sweets, but DAMN this stuff is like sugar water!

GREAT story, though.

We largely missed out of this whole iced tea thing in Australia until recently. Which is kind of surprising because tea is popular and the weather is hot. Now you can buy it in bottles but like iced coffee, I bet you can make your own better than the bottled stuff. I am going to give this a try! Then I am going to sit out on the verandah (porch to you guys), sip iced tea and talk like forrest gump. Lol.

As much as I love sweet tea, and thank you for this instructable, I must now label you as one of ~those~ jerks. :p

I worked at a restaurant in Maryland, just south enough that our more southern customers liked sweet tea, just north enough that we didn't have any. I absolutely hated when customers asked for this. IT IS NOT ON THE MENU! "Fresh Brewed Iced Tea." Like exactly every other cr@ppy restaurant, it was brewed just warm enough to become tea. What makes a customer think we have it, or that it's even possible for something that needs to be brewed and sweetened while still boiling, and then cooled? Even our hot tea was served as hot water with a tea bag. Still not as bad as the assumption that we had raspberry ice tea (plus I have the same problem with that as people who get diet coke, thinking it's better for them). At least I understood the difference and instead of "I can bring you sugar with it," I said "we only have unsweetened; the best I can do is..."

Still not gonna stop me from making a whole gallon of this ;) Made a jar of this the other day. Better than the McDonald's stuff, or worse, the Arizona stuff.

2 replies

*laugh* I won't argue; that's totally me. I did try not to do it too much, at least. Just when I was feeling homesick. :)

Awesome! I was just thinking to myself "I wonder if there's an Instructable for sweet tea..."

I have a whole box of tea (20 bags?) that I got from the USO for free. It's been pretty warm lately so I didn't want to drink it hot.
I'll definitely try this.

(I'm from San Diego so the only "sweet tea" I've had has been from McDonald's.)

my stepmoms tea is da best small boiler 4 lipton tea bags 2 cups of DIXE CRYSTAL sugar put in picher add sugar fill up with FILTERD water

1 reply

If you add the sugar to the water before it boils the tea will not be cloudy.

I cheat ''- I put water and heaps of sugar in microwaveable pyrex measuring cup. Microwave - stir - wave until it dissolves. Add to pitcher of tea bags and warm water. (If using a glass pitcher place a metal spoon in first to catch the heat)

Set in sun and when the color is dark enough for you --- add ice. We drink so much in the DEEP SOUTH (Displaced Texan) it makes up quickly!

I love your technique and the love you put into making a truly fine brew.

2 replies

I wanted to say a big THANK YOU.my wife's grandma passed away in 07 & I have not had a real glass of sweet tea sence.from what I remember that is the way she made it.but I could not think of how to do it,until now.thank you. and grandma B would be happy 2. lol

That works too. :) Thanks! It's been neat to see everyone else's recipes and tips for making sweet tea, too.

As a die hard fan of sweet tea I want to share the following tip. Anyone who makes iced tea has noticed that it will cloud up. To prevent clouding the Ph balance needs to be adjusted. Lemon's work fine in this role, if one likes lemon in their tea. I do not and after a great deal of experimentation found that small pinch of baking soda added to the tea will significantly reduce clouding. Also allow the tea to cool to room temperature before refigerating (or just add ice as needed).

2 replies

Then you'll want to investigate the tannins. They are formed in a condensation reaction as the tea cools including fluctuations in ambient temperature. The latter is why all tea eventually clouds up. The change in the ph balance either by adding lemon or a base such as baking soda significantly inhibits their formation. For reasons which are not well understood the formation of insoluble tannins (which account for the cloudiness and explains why it doesn't really affect the flavor) are also affected by the rate of cooling. The slower the cooling, the less cloudy the tea. This may very well account for the traditional crockery dispenser/.

There's a Burger King in Saugus, Mass, that has always served sweet tea. For the last 25 years or so, at least. If you like it, fine. I can't handle it. It's like syrup. But I thought if you're in Boston, you might as well know of at least one restaurant that serves it unasked. You can't get normal iced tea there, so it's a shock to non-regulars.